My union – the UCU is supposed to be having its congress this week but it has been abandoned, after a couple of days of mostly chaos, although some good work has been done on casualisation and other issues, including the difficult issue of the use of lecture capture which was possibly misused in the recent strike making it a source of conflict between staff and student in universities.
The issue is whether the General Secretary can be criticised and asked to resign in a motion at congress. This raises issues about her employment and rights, and she is supported by other staff who see this as a threat and is covered by the standing orders which do prevent this from happening.
This is reasonable, but places the union is a difficult situation when, as now, there is a lot of unhappiness in the membership of the General Secretary’s conduct during an industrial dispute. This is always likely given the messy nature of industrial disputes and the almost certainty of different views on the termination of action – on the basis that you never get all you want (and if you did then there would be a valid criticism that you were not asking for enough). Both sides it seems to me should be able to recognise that. But the rule above seems to me to be unworkable – and needs to be replaced by a more positive procedure about what can be done.
I don’t think anyone should be sacked or forced to resign as a result of a motion in a conference – even if they could address the conference. However, the conference must be allowed to voice views which might indicate a level of dissatisfaction that should lead to that.
The background has remarkable historical resonance for me. There are two factions in UCU – the broad left and UCU left. There were two main blocks when I was involved in student politics (Sussex 1972-5), generally similar blocks. We did have the Maoists, bless them, but they were never significant. The left block was split between two groups – the precursor to the SWP and the International Marxist group, often to be found in the bar disputing the nature of the soviet state in obscure terms. Thought – maybe the SWP need a stronger rival in the far left to keep it in line?
I had fun (being an un-organised yippie – M15 have me down as an anarchist because their Fed of Conservative Students informant wasn’t that clear about political differences!) representing the Union Council (made up of sports and other basically conservative groups) on the Union executive with either the broad or the far left. It is possible to work with the different groups for the best of the union, but it needs people who have a wider perspective. The broad left are generally better at managing things, the far left at getting people involved.
The problem is that there doesn’t seem to be anyone taking that role in the UCU at the moment, and nobody seems to have thought about what was going to happen. Both sides should have seen this coming and had contingency plans.
For me I can’t help thinking this is a problem of virtue, this is what politics is about, if you want to play the game you need to know how you are going to play and play well. I am sorry for all the first-time delegates at the conference who got thrown into all this and must be feeling frustrated and angry. But there must be enough people around who should have the experience and sense to have helped to manage this better.